The EU drugs market report and 2900 tonnes of missing opium

Last Thursday, Cecilia Malmström, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, launched The EU drug markets report | A strategic analysis, which was published for the first time by the EMCDDA and Europol.  Explaining the need for the report, Malmström said that “Drug trafficking—whilst illegal—is a highly profitable commercial activity. Understanding this market reality requires a holistic approach, following the economic chain from production to consumption via trafficking”.

Recent years have seen heroin use falling across Europe, and the report attempts to attribute this fall to the successes of law enforcement the. Such attempts reveal the difficulty of making accurate estimates about problematic drug use, and show how little evidence is behind the strategy of supply side enforcement.  EMCDDA and Europol’s report accredits “short term market shocks” to “successful interdiction efforts on the Balkan trafficking route” and goes on to suggest that “Europe may now be moving into a new era in which heroin, and opiods generally, could play a less central role than in the past.”

The idea that interdiction efforts make a real difference to the prevalence of heroin use is a very long way from being proven, and there are clearly other factors involved in heroin’s decreasing prevalence in Europe.  Moreover, even when interdiction efforts do result in a reduction in supply in heroin markets, such a reduction is known to have serious and harmful unintended consequences.

An increase in street prices can lead to an increase in poly-substance use as well as in acquisitive crime committed by heroin users to maintain their drug use.  Increased wholesale prices lead to varying levels of purity and higher levels of adulterants. This combination increases the risk of overdose. 

Further, the claims made about the successes of interdiction efforts are highly questionable. EMCDDA report that in 2010, the peak year for heroin seizures, law enforcement authorities across the world seized 20% (81 tonnes) of the heroin produced that year.

However, the UNODC estimate that 2900 tonnes of raw opium were produced but not seized in 2010, and have difficulty accounting for this opium (enough to produce a further 290 tonnes of heroin).  Estimates of global raw opium consumption range from 1.3 tonnes to 1300 tonnes, but still leave a large amount of opium that could be stockpiled or made into heroin.

These confusing figures and large amounts of opium left unaccounted for show how much law enforcement agencies are still guessing about the drug market; all the way “from production to consumption via trafficking”. Moreover, Malmström, and the whole strategy of supply side reduction, miss the point that drug trafficking is a highly profitable commercial activity because drug trafficking is illegal, not despite being illegal.